Larsson brings touch of glory to crowning

Celtic 5 Livingston 1
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The Independent Online

The forest of green flags which provided the backdrop to Celtic Park's raucous celebrations yesterday said it all: "Champions 2001-02 – we have not been moved!"

Martin O'Neill delivered the second successive Scottish Premier League title since taking charge of Celtic two summers ago, and if the first one – which broke Rangers' stranglehold – was sweet, then a successful defence was more satisfying. His team led from the start last July to this early finish, with four games to spare, and are on course to break records in terms of fewest points and goals conceded.

"To win last year was great, but to retain it was magnificent, especially as we dropped only nine points," declared O'Neill. What next, the manager was asked. "Let me enjoy this," he replied. "The one thing I share with my old mentor, Brian Clough, is that we are never able to enjoy these moments."

Parsimony is paramount in O'Neill's philosophy, but Celtic's tradition is all about flair, goals and excitement – and they delivered on all counts yesterday, with a stunning display which sealed the championship.

Henrik Larsson inscribed a hat-trick upon the occasion further to enhance his vital statistics. The 11th hat-trick of the prolific striker's five seasons at Parkhead – one of which ended prematurely after a broken leg – took his haul for this campaign to 35, giving him a total of 88 goals in two seasons after last term's remarkable feat propelled him to the European Golden Shoe as the continent's top scorer.

His partner in crime, John Hartson, supplied two. The Welshman was bought for£6 million in August, essentially as cover, but injuries to Chris Sutton have allowed Hartson plenty of playing time to plunder 21 goals. How Rangers must rue abandoning a move to buy him 18 months ago after a medical highlighted a knee problem.

This day though, was about the fans' celebrations. The crescendo of noise which built up as the last few seconds slipped away would been heard across the city. The scenes of joy were barely diluted by their inevitability.

Tickertape fell from the giant stands, while hundreds of green and white balloons were released into the sky. Celtic's players were joined by their wives and children on the pitch, with the League trophy being caressed almost as warmly as those loved ones. When Larsson hugged his son, Jordan, it was the closest anyone had got to the striker all day.

He had eluded his markers just two minutes into the game to uncork those championship celebrations. Paul Lambert's throw-in had been held up by Hartson and gathered again by Lambert, who picked out Larsson with a cut-back which was ruthlessly swept in from eight yards.

It was the perfect start to Celtic's perfect day. When Livingston came here on Boxing Day, it had required a last-minute winner from Larsson to provide a 3-2 win, and they had also drawn with the champions earlier in the campaign. Any potential for shocks was removed when Hartson scored after 19 minutes. The striker won a hard challenge to set up Didier Agathe, whose pace took him beyond Oscar Rubio. He then clipped in a cross which Hartson deliciously volleyed past goalkeeper Javier Broto.

Six minutes later, Hartson added to that when he met Steve Guppy's cross from the opposite flank and powered a header into the roof of the net for Celtic's third. Jim Leishman, Livingston's manager, anxiously gulped down water on the sidelines, but the flood of goals had not yet abated.

Larsson made it 4-0 after 33 minutes, finishing off some superb build-up play, which Stilian Petrov initiated, before heading in Guppy's cross. Livingston may have looked out of their depth, but to put things in perspective, Juventus and Manchester United also conceded four to this rampant Celtic side.

Larsson then struck his 100th Scottish League goal, in the 59th minute, courtesy of another Lambert cut-back, before Barry Wilson stole in to grab a merited consolation for the visitors.

Later, Larsson reflected on his perfect day and smiled: "You could never get tired of this. It's a great achievement."

Celtic 5 Larsson 3, 33, 59, Hartson 19, 25

Livingston 1 Wilson 72

Half-time: 4-0 Attendance: 59,752

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